The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 by T.A. Heathcote

This is one of those books that I read through, cover to cover, within hours of opening. There’s something almost holy about the British Field Marshal. Even more so since the 1995 Betts report recommended that senior officers should not be appointed to Field Marshal, Admiral of the Fleet or Marshal of the Royal Air Force, except in special circumstances. The feeling is that the Field Marshal is now a thing of history, and indeed there are very few surviving holders of this high rank alive. Added to this, Field Marshals never retire, and are on the active list for life. Anyone promoted to the top of the tree, and awarded the Prince Regent-designed Baton, is in exalted company indeed. Of the 138 men to hold the rank, there are some fine names indeed to consider – Wellington, Roberts, Kitchener, French, Haig, Plumer, Allenby, Robertson, Birdwood, Smuts, Gort, Wavell, Brooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Wilson, Auchinleck and Slim.

The interesting thing is, that Field Marshal as a rank has never been a condition, or benefit, or serving in a particular appointment. There were points in both the First and Second World Wars when the Chief of the Imperial General Staff  – the head of the British Army – was a General, while theatre commanders – technically subordinates – were Field Marshals. The rank can often be awarded by Royal approval, as it was to Haig in 1916 and Montgomery in 1944. It has also been awarded on an honorary level to 22 British and Foreign Monarchs, Royal Consorts of officers of commonwealth or Allied Armies – one of them being Marshal Foch, and also a certain Emperor Hirohito.

I was particularly interested to read the analysis of what arms Field Marshals came from. As someone who has critiqued the armed forces for the background of their leaders, I was intrigued to see how the Army fared. And it’s rather interesting. 20 Field Marshals came from the Cavalry, 4 from Armour, 10 from Artillery, 5 Engineers, 18 Foot Guards, 48 Line Infantry (including 8 scottish, 14 Rifles or Light Infantry and 1 Gurkha), and 11 from the old Indian Army. The schools attended by Field Marshals is also an interesting appendix -  15 for Eton, 3 from Charterhouse, 3 from Marlborough, 4 from Wellington, 6 Westminster, 5 from Winchester and 2 from Harrow.

The individual entries about each Field Marshal are informative, but concise as you would expect from a Biographical Dictionary. I particularly enjoyed reading about some of the older, lesser known Field Marshals pre-Wellington. We often think that the Iron Duke was the first Field Marshal. After he captured Marshal Jourdan’s Baton at Vitoria, the Prince Regent promised to send him the Baton of a British Field Marshal in return. No such Baton existed, however, so one had to be hastily designed!

It is of course a shame that we no longer, generally speaking, appoint Field Marshals. As much as the historian in me would love to see the Baton awarded more regularly, the realist in me acknowledges that our armed forces are so small, and the nature of warfare is so different nowadays, that it is perhaps not appropriate to automatically promote officers to the rank, when it is largely symbolic. If in the future we found ourselves in a mass-mobilisation war and generals were again commanding large forces in action, then by all means bring it back. But the clue is in the title – ‘Field Marshal’, he who marshal’s the field of battle. Is a Field Marshal’s place in Whitehall, in peacetime?

Funnily enough, a matter of days ago it was announced that General Lord Guthrie – Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001,  the last CDS not to be promoted to the highest level and the provider of the foreword for this book – was being made a Field Marshal in the Queens Birthday Honours. Also awarded the rank, along with Admiral of the Fleet and Marshal of the Royal Air Force, was Prince Charles. Illustrating succinctly how Field Marshals can be appointed after a lifetime of service, or as an honour.

The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 is published by Pen and Sword

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2 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week

2 responses to “The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 by T.A. Heathcote

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